Did U.S. trigger Imran Khan’s ouster after his Moscow visit last year?

By Mayank Chhaya-

The U.S. State Department has issued a non-denial denial about an explosive story that a leaked diplomatic cipher preceded the ouster last year of Pakistan’s then Prime Minister Imran Khan, now in prison over corruption charges.

The story which appeared in The Intercept on August 10 broadly echoed claims made by Khan himself over the last several months suggesting that Washington may have triggered a no-confidence vote against his government which led to his ouster. The cipher refers to a communication between State Department officials and their Pakistani counterparts, including Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu, and Pakistani envoy Asad Majeed Khan.

Its contents, which were published by The Intercept, reflected among other things Washington’s barely disguised displeasure with Islamabad under Khan taking a pro-Moscow position on President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

As quoted by The Intercept, the contents are quite damning and clearly indicate Washington’s seeming interference in the internal affairs of another country. The fact that that country happens to be America’s longstanding ally Pakistan makes it quite tricky.

“Don[ald Lu] referred to Pakistan’s position on the Ukraine crisis and said that ‘people here and in Europe are quite concerned about why Pakistan is taking such an aggressively neutral position (on Ukraine), if such a position is even possible. It does not seem such a neutral stand to us.’ He shared that in his discussions with the NSC (National Security Council), ‘it seems quite clear that this is the prime minister’s policy’,” the excerpt published by The Intercept said.

Apparently, the Pakistani envoy challenged that view saying that Khan’s position was a result of intensive consultations among various agencies.

“I asked Don[ald Lu] if the reason for a strong US reaction was Pakistan’s abstention in the voting in the UNGA [United Nations General Assembly]. He categorically replied in the negative and said that it was due to the Prime Minister’s visit to Moscow,” The Intercept quoted the purported cable as saying.

Lu reportedly said, “I think if the no-confidence vote against the Prime Minister succeeds, all will be forgiven in Washington because the Russia visit is being looked at as a decision by the Prime Minister. Otherwise, I think it will be tough going ahead.”

The language “if the no-confidence vote against the Prime Minister succeeds, all will be forgiven in Washington” is deeply problematic as it implies a less than subtle directive to Islamabad what needed to be done to put US-Pakistan relations back on an even keel. What makes the cable particularly troubling is the assessment of the Pakistani ambassador that “without the express approval of the White House, to which he referred repeatedly.”

At a briefing on Wednesday, State department spokesman Matthew Miller confirmed that Washington did “express concern privately to the government of Pakistan” and then did the same “publicly [when] then PM Khan [went] to Moscow on the very day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”

Miller insisted that “in no way show the United States taking a position on who the leader of Pakistan ought to be… I think what they show is the US government expressing concern about the policies choices the PM was taking.”

“The allegations that the United States has interfered in internal decisions about the leadership of Pakistan are false, as we have stated they were false. They were always false and they remain false,” Miller said.

While this may sound like a denial, viewed together it sounds like a clever non-denial.

The Intercept story has created quite a controversy in Pakistan with many believing that the cable may have leaked by Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party (PTI), timed with his mounting legal troubles as well as his conviction and incarceration. The party has denied the allegation.

Any suggestion that Khan or his party may have been the source of the leak exposes them to a whole new charge under the Official Secrets Act. The country’s Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah said so as much in a tweet: “It should not be forgotten that Imran Khan Niazi had a copy of the cypher, which he has not returned and has accepted (on record) that he misplaced or lost it. If proven guilty, Khan should be tried under the Official Secret(s) Act.”

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